Repairing Relationships-Part III
In my capacity as an outpatient psychologist for twenty-five
years, I deal with the same eight conditions over and over.
One of the most common complaints I hear about is relationships.
(The other seven are mood problems, children's behaviors, ADHD or
learning disorders, anxiety, low self-esteem, poor assertiveness
and addictions). This is Part III of a five part series of articles
that describe the five most essential elements of keeping longer-term relationships alive. (It so happens that these same techniques work
in all relationships.) Please read Parts I and II before reading
The first two techniques for maintaining and enriching
relationships are Structured Communication and the Four-to-One
Rule. In this article, I'd like to address one thing that kills
relationships, expressed in The Seven Deadly Words or Phrases.
The Seven Deadly Words or Phrases are: "Always," "Never,"
"You should," "You must," "You ought to," "You have to," or
"You need to."
The first two, "Always" and "Never" are either situational
or moral absolutes. In real life, there are few if any things
that occur always or never. The world is not built that way.
The world is gray, not black and white. While there are
circumstances that are very dark or light, it is rare that
something is absolutely at the extreme. One can argue some
particulars, such as 1 + 1 always equals 2. Good. Death and
taxes are the only predictable events in the life of a human.
(The latter is not necessarily the case...). The sun always
comes up in the east. True, for now, but in 500 million years,
the sun may be non-existent, so then what? You know I'm not
talking about this kind of phenomena.
I'm talking about human behavior, which is not this way.
We are not linear, straight, right-angled beings. We are not
mathematical equations, nor astronomical events. We are
subjective, emotional, irrational, curvilinear and wiggly.
Get used to it. Stop trying to squeeze people into absolute,
controllable, predictable blocks. This goes for behaviors
inside our heads as well as outside.
When talking about behavior, especially your partner's,
drop the words always and never from your vocabulary. Instead,
use words like, "it seems like" or "often," or "sometimes," or
"perhaps you feel..." These words and phrases more accurately
express subjective reality. Give the other person some slack.
Give them room to respond personally and idiosyncratically. This
usually reduces a lot of tension and often stops stubbornness,
oppositionalness and other rigid protestations.
The next five words or phrases are judgments. You "should"
do something is a statement that says you failed because I said so.
"My standards are superior to yours, so get with it." When told I
should do something, my first reaction is to ask, according to whose
values or ideas? While you may be right, I'd like to think about
that, or I'd like to maybe interject some other standards
(like my own). And, why would you say I "should" do something?
Could it be you want to control me?
These are all negative approaches to maneuvering someone else,
via indirect control. It is a power play that engenders resentment,
not cooperation. They portend poorly for happy relationships.
And, the remaining four statements, ("ought to," "have to,"
"must" and "need to") are just variants of the "should" theme.
And, not surprisingly, they have the same negative effect on others.
The kernel here is that the recipient of such language is being
judged. This feels bad, no matter what age or situation. If you
want something from your partner, try asking assertively, but leaving
room for that person to respond with equal status and personal power. "Absolutisms" and judgments hurt. Try eliminating these seven from
your vocabulary with your partner.